Tuesday, October 15, 2013
My problem with the 'clutch' argument
By Keith Law
David Ortiz is amazing at hitting baseballs. Can we just leave it at that?
David Ortiz's game-tying home run on Sunday night in Game 2 of the ALCS spawned a discussion about whether he's a clutch hitter, something I don't believe exists, but many people inside and outside the industry do, pointing to Ortiz and Carlos Beltran as exemplars of the species.
The statistical arguments here are largely unsatisfying to both sides, but I dislike the idea of the "clutch hitter" not just because I see no evidence he exists, but because of what this term says about how we watch and enjoy the sport itself.
One huge problem with the "clutch" narrative is that its proponents define clutch as needed to fit the situation. There is no clear definition of the term, no threshold for the scenario, so an at-bat is clutch if someone says it is, and arguing the other side is pointless because clutchness can't be proven or disproven. This also leads to extensive cherry-picking after the fact, where at-bats may be discarded as insufficiently clutch because they don't provide the desired results.
We can look at high-leverage situations, or "close and late" statistics, but those may be tossed because they include situations too early in games, or in games deemed unimportant.
We can look at postseason statistics, but those samples are small even for the most prolific playoff producers -- only about a dozen players have even reached 300 plate appearances in October, which isn't even half of a full season of playing time.
So we're left with clutch-is-as-clutch-does arguments -- it was clutch because we called it clutch. These are inherently unsatisfying because there is no rigor to them at all, and because we can simply redefine situations post hoc if we're not getting the answer we want. If you're telling me that Player X has magic powers, then show me magic. Either he's better in some empirically demonstrable way, or you might as well tell me he can bend spoons with his mind.
Why create myths?
The lack of definition isn't my biggest issue with the whole argument about clutch hitters, nor is the loose way the "clutch" term is thrown around. My negative reaction to any discussion of Clutchy McClutcherson's inherent clutchiness derives from what it implies about those players -- and about the players who don't earn the "clutch" tag.
David Ortiz has a career line in the majors of .287 AVG/.381 OBP/.549 SLG with 431 homers, and he's at .292/.390/.572 since joining the Red Sox after the 2002 season. He's a tremendous hitter, one of the best of the past decade and one of the best pure power hitters in the game's history.
So why isn't that good enough?
Why can we appreciate Ortiz only if that production were to increase in critical situations? Why can't our heroes be ordinary men with extraordinary talents, instead of extraordinary men with preternatural abilities? Being a great hitter should be good enough -- and great hitters are great in all situations.
Slapping the "clutch" tag on a great player also raises an uncomfortable question about his performance in non-clutch situations. If a player can raise his game when it seems to count more -- again, an arbitrary distinction -- then is he putting forth less than full effort or intensity in all other situations? Does he care only when the spotlight is at its brightest?
Having spent time around ballplayers and in the occasional clubhouse, I don't believe this is true. Players who reach the majors are there not just because they have exceptional talent, but because they have shown the work ethic and the drive to get to that point. Players who falter under pressure or don't work to get the most out of their abilities fall off in the minors, sometimes right out of the chute, sometimes when the competition gets tougher in Double-A, but by the time we get to the 750 players on Opening Day rosters each April, the chaff has already been threshed out.
Defining the "others"
The other implication of separating clutch players from the pack is that those deemed un-clutch are demeaned by their omission, as if their lack of this superpower to find a fifth gear in October or in the ninth inning is some sort of character flaw.
There will always be players who perform a little worse in high-leverage situations than in normal ones, and there will always be players who perform a little better in those situations. Players aren't robots, and their performances will naturally vary over time; the shorter the time period in question, the less predictable the performances. That's part of the joy of the game. Why ruin that joy by turning every game-tying home run or bases-loaded strikeout into a judgment on the character of the man holding the wooden stick?
I enjoy baseball for the sport itself -- for the athleticism on display, for the feats of strength and speed and endurance, for the seconds between "In play, run(s)" and the actual result, for the drama and tension of a close game on a crisp October evening. I enjoy traveling to see tomorrow's stars and following those players through their pro careers, up the minor league ladder, across levels and adjustments and disabled-list stints and trades and all the things that make up the story of any one player's baseball life. I don't need to make these players into demigods to appreciate what they bring to me every time they take the field and I'm fortunate enough to be watching.
David Ortiz isn't clutch. He's just awesome at baseball. And that should be plenty for us all.